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Major tech firms urged to end targeted ads to under-18s

An open letter to Google, Facebook and others is calling on the tech firms to take responsibility for protecting users of their services by ending behavioural advertising to children

Privacy campaigners and children’s rights advocates have published a joint open letter demanding that major technology companies turn off targeted advertising to children and halt the digital surveillance that underpins it.

Co-ordinated by environmental charity Global Action Plan (GAP), the letter has so far received 23 signatories from legal firms, academics, clinicians and others, and claims that the behavioural marketing practised by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft undermines children’s privacy online.

“We recognise that most popular sites and apps are funded by behavioural advertising,” it said. “But these products, overwhelmingly designed for and by adults, are accessed by large and growing numbers of children – children who are tracked, profiled and targeted with ads such that their attention can be most effectively monetised.

 “For under-13s, it shouldn’t be happening at all. Unless informed parental consent is granted, data protection laws expressly prohibit the data-mining of young children on which behavioural advertising depends.

“The fact that ad-tech companies hold 72 million data points on a child by the time they turn 13 shows the extent of disregard for these laws, and the extraordinary surveillance to which children are subjected.”

The letter added that children of all ages were more susceptible to the pressures of marketing and less likely than adults to recognise what data is being used to target them and how. It concluded: “There is no justification for targeting teenagers with personalised ads any more than there is for targeting 12-year-olds.”

The letter is part of GAP’s new Stop Targeted Advertising to Kids campaign, which argues that online behavioural advertising accelerates consumerism, harming wellbeing and adds to the already perilous strain placed on the planet by climate change.

“The last thing kids or their parents need in their lives is invasive, manipulative marketing,” said Oliver Hayes, policy and campaigns lead at GAP. “While Google, Facebook and others are keen to tout their green commitments, the reality is that their eye-popping ad revenue is generated by aggressive marketing that encourages hyper-consumerism.

“But for the tech giants, strained family wellbeing, ecological destruction and eroded privacy appear to be collateral in the pursuit of ad dollars.”

Hayes said one in three internet users are children, and the tech giants have a responsibility to protect them.

“If platforms serve targeted ads to under-13s, they’re already breaking the law,” he said. “There is nothing stopping them going further and immediately turning off invasive ads to all under-18s. It’s the right thing to do – it’s high time they did it.”

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The letter comes days after a £2.5bn claim was lodged in the UK High Court against Google and its subsidiary YouTube by digital economy researcher Duncan McCann, who accuses the tech giant of collecting data on over five million children without parental consent and breaching the privacy and data rights of under-13s.

Martha Dark, director of digital rights group Foxglove, which is serving as co-counsel in McCann’s case and signed the joint letter, said Google’s and others’ ability to profit from the attention of children must end.

“It is inconceivable that all the major platforms don’t know their services are heavily accessed by children,” she said. “They need to act like it and stop breaking the law.”

But according to Google, its clients are unable to target advertisements at users under the age of 13, with demographic targeting options starting at the age of 18.

Google said it also provides an option for advertisers to have their ads excluded from showing to signed-in users under 13 or the applicable age of consent in their country, and that ads on its YouTube Kids platform are shown based on the content of the video, rather than the audience.

In response to request for comment from Computer Weekly, Microsoft said it had nothing to say. The three other major tech companies mentioned in the joint GAP letter were also approached for comment, but no response was received by time of publication.

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